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Guest Host: Lisa Desjardins
Human beings didn’t always choose to sit on chairs. Most pre-modern cultures greatly preferred sitting on the floor. Then in 10th century China, some began bringing a portable stool made of wood inside the home, and the shift to chair–sitting was underway. Over the centuries, some chairs have become classics, like the Chippendale wing chair and the iconic American rocker. Others, like George Washington’s fan chair, didn’t make it out of the 18th century. Distinguished architect and writer Witold Rybczynski on the history of chairs and what they say about us.
- Witold Rybczynski Writer and emeritus professor of architecture, University of Pennsylvania
Read An Excerpt
MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins filling in for Diane Rehm. She's away getting a voice treatment. Right now, I'm sitting in Diane's classic, simple black office chair, swivels around and as you listen, maybe you're in a sleek, modern swivel chair or perhaps your back side's against a hard plastic subway seat or maybe, as it is with some in my family, it's a throne made of the swords of your enemies. No, we don't actually have that, but we know of people who do.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSNo matter, whatever kind of seat you are in, award-winning architect and writer Witold Rybczynski says the chairs that we choose tell a great deal about us, about our status and about our values and that our chairs also reveal a surprising amount about humankind itself. His book it titled "Now I Sit Me Down." And author Witold Rybczynski joins me now in the studio thank you for talking to us.
MR. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKIGood morning, Lisa.
DESJARDINSYou have done -- you have covered so many topics in, I believe, about 20 books talking about what these objects mean in our lives, everything from the home to the screwdriver. Why the chair? I have to ask you.
RYBCZYNSKIWell, when I wrote "Home," which was a book about domestic comfort, I wrote about furniture and I thought it might be interesting to go into it in a little more detail. And a few years ago, I wrote a book called "One Good Turn," which is about the screwdriver and the chair is a kind of tool for sitting on, but as I wrote about it, I realized it's actually a much more complicated and, in a way, interesting tool because it's aesthetic.
RYBCZYNSKIIt's status. It's comfort. It's -- people have favorite chairs, as you said. We don't have favorite tables or favorite chest of drawers.
DESJARDINSYes, that's true.
RYBCZYNSKIBut we have favorite chairs. So it's a very -- it's a funny kind of personal tool as well as being just a tool for sitting on.
DESJARDINSAnd listeners, we want to hear your personal stories about chairs. This is your opportunity to tell us. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Stick with us because I think this is going to be an interesting conversation. Nothing that I expected to be covering as a political reporter, but I'm happy to delve into this. And I want to start by asking you to read a passage from your book.
DESJARDINSIt kind of gets at the expanded thought in your book about the chair, that this is not really just a didactic exercise for you. Can you read this passage? And it begins with a quote from a furniture maker who you admire.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah. John Dunnigan is a furniture maker and he's in Rhode Island and he's somebody I talked to because I -- he actually made a couple of chairs for me, which are beautiful chairs that I enjoy. And here's what he said about his furniture. He said, "If I had to describe my furniture, I would say that it's sensual sometimes, that it's comfortable sometimes, that it's traditional or historically-referenced sometimes, but it's really about what I see as a basic issue of human existence.
RYBCZYNSKI"It's about how a person moves their body in space and how they interact with other objects. Furniture is about how the body sits on it or puts something on it. It would be the same for somebody living in 2000 A.D. or 2000 B.C."
DESJARDINSAnd then, you added -- I want to read the paragraph that you wrote after that.
RYBCZYNSKI"This is an important insight. Yes, a chair is an everyday object, even if it's sometimes decorated. But it's an everyday object with which the human body has a intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you. You rub against it. You caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting.
RYBCZYNSKI"If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more."
DESJARDINSThis is toward the beginning of your book and that was the moment where you really got my attention, the idea of the chair could be more than art. Let's go back to the chair existing at all. How did the chair come to be? I know it seems in two different parts of the world, ancient Egypt, ancient China. We saw different developments occur.
RYBCZYNSKIWell, I went to museums to look at paintings and furniture and the oldest chair I found wasn't actually a chair, it was a sculpture of a chair about a foot high and it was from the Cycladic civilization, which is what existed in Greece before the ancient Greeks. And it's a beautiful little sculpture of a man playing a harp sitting in what looks like an ordinary kitchen chair. It's just a side chair with four legs and a back, just the sort of thing you might see today.
DESJARDINSHow far back do they think that dates? Yeah.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd this is 3000 B.C.
RYBCZYNSKIWhat struck me was we don't know anything about the Cycladic civilization because they didn't have any writing so they didn't leave a record. They just left these beautiful little sculptures that have survived. There are also faces and other things. So it's a mystery. They obviously -- the chair existed and ordinary people like musicians sat on them. It wasn't just the throne. But more than that, we really don't know so the chair begins really in sort of prehistory and by the -- and ancient Egyptians who left a lot of furniture in tombs, we do know what they looked like.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd we know they had stools and different people sat on them. They also sat on the ground. So with Egypt, we know a lot more about it, but it's one of those human devices that really does seem to have been around forever.
DESJARDINSAnd the ancient Egyptians gave us a chair that is not just around in general today, but is actually at JC Penney's today, correct?
RYBCZYNSKIYes. The little folding stool that people take for camping trips or when they're fishing or some artists use them for sketching is actually invented by the Egyptians. So it's about 5,000 years old.
DESJARDINSAnd it has a name, right?
RYBCZYNSKIIt's an X-frame stool and what struck me was here's something that we use that goes back all -- we don't use anything else from ancient Egypt. We don't dress like them. We don't sit on the floor. We don’t have pharaohs. We don't build pyramids. And yet, we still use this stool. It's just such a wonderful invention. Nobody's really improved on it. And that's one of the things that struck me about furniture, that it's, you know, we are very proud of making computers.
RYBCZYNSKIOur computers last about five years. It's hard to think of something that we've made that's going to be around for 3 or 4,000 years. And yet, furniture is like that. It doesn't go out of -- it goes out of fashion, but it's still useful. And sometimes it comes back into fashion and we just continue using it really without thinking -- we don't think we're on antique. We're just sitting on a stool.
DESJARDINSCan you tell me about cultures which rose to include chairs in their daily life and those that did not? Because many cultures also chose to remain on the ground, on floors.
RYBCZYNSKIYes. I make the point in the book, there's nothing primitive about sitting on the ground, just as there's nothing really sophisticated about sitting up on a chair. Some very sophisticated cultures in the Middle East, in Japan traditionally sat on mats on the floor. And you mentioned the Chinese. The Chinese are so interesting because they're the only culture that we know about that started by sitting on the floor mats on the ground, on the floor in houses and then invented chairs without any influence from the West, as far as we know.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd they weren't colonialized. They weren't sort of imposed on them as, say, chairs were in India or parts of Africa. And they just switched. They stopped sitting on the ground and moved to chairs and they had huge effects on their architecture, on the dress.
RYBCZYNSKIWomen wearing trousers, which is a Chinese tradition, start wearing trousers when they're sitting up on chairs because it's not a very comfortable piece of clothing to have if you're sitting on the ground. And their way of eating changed and the sort of communal table that we associate with Chinese food where people have dishes and they serve themselves from these common dishes. That all starts when they're sitting around the table on stools. So it had a huge impact on their culture.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd by the way, we're talking about 1,000 A.D. so we're in the middle ages, barely sitting on benches and the Chinese already have proper chairs.
DESJARDINSAnd I want to talk -- ask you one more thing about the Chinese evolution of the chair. It came -- you imply because of -- they wanted to have heated seats in a way, right? They had already created sort of a heated bench.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah. In -- there's always this question, which comes first? You know, do we invent a chair and sit on it or do we sit up and then invent chairs. And I think the posture always comes first.
RYBCZYNSKIThe Chinese had these heated platforms because it's very cold in Northern China. And they sat on them cross-legged on carpets and mats, but at some point, they must have sat on the edge of the platform and they started sitting with their legs down. And these platforms were in houses so they would lean against the wall. And they kind of -- they seemed to have moved from that to developing platforms with backs, sort of looks like a sofa a little bit.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd then, from that, they came to the chair. So there was this kind of...
DESJARDINSWas that a fast evolution?
DESJARDINSWas that a fast evolution or over hundreds of years?
RYBCZYNSKINo, it was very slow. But once they invented the chair, it was very fast. So chairs were the emperors -- we have paintings of the emperor sitting on a chair and we have paintings which show chairs used in taverns and restaurants and eating places. So it seemed to have spread all over China very quickly. And, of course, this was at a moment when Chinese culture was really very dynamic. The two kingdoms had been merged. They were inventing all kinds of things, gun powder and paper money and everything was in ferment.
RYBCZYNSKISo furniture was part of that change and I think when we look for new ways of sitting, we're also saying something about our attitude towards the future and our attitudes towards society changing.
DESJARDINSWe have a lot more to say about sitting, listeners. Stick with us. We're going to take a short break. We would love to hear from you so give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. I'm Lisa Desjardins and we'll be right back.
DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are receiving a beautiful avalanche of emails and tweets with people's favorite chairs and chair thoughts. Let me run through a few of those are our guest, Witold Rybczynski, author of "Now I Sit Me Down," sits down across from me. First one from V. Jackson, who writes on Twitter, my favorite chair is an oversized chair and ottoman, just thinking about it is comforting. They write, who knew, great show. Thank you for that.
DESJARDINSAnother tweet we have, I could do an hour-long show all by myself about the Eames lounge chair. Take my wife, take my dog, don't take my chair. And I'll read a couple of emails, there are so many. This email is from Ann, who writes, I have a simple wooden rocker in our house that belonged to my grandmother, who rocked her babies then my mother, who rocked me and my siblings, then to my husband and me, who rocked our babies, and we now rock our grandbabies in this chair. Is there any chair that is more full of love, Witold Rybczynski? Are there chairs that seem to evoke that personal connection more than others?
RYBCZYNSKIWell, the rocking chair, it's interesting what she says about the rocking chair because the earliest evidence of a rocking chair, which happens in colonial America, around Philadelphia, is that a chair maker makes what he calls a nursing chair with rockers. And a nursing chair for mothers, without arms, so there was space to hold the baby in. And the -- what's so fascinating about the rocking chair is that cradles have been around since the Middle Ages, but nobody figured out that maybe putting rockers on a chair would -- the mother could hold the baby, and it would be like a cradle.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd it happens in colonial America, and so there is this connection between the rocking chair and the cradle and holding babies, and I think those comments about favorite chairs, a lot of -- a chair is not a favorite because it's an object. A chair is a favorite because of what you do in it. And so holding a baby in a chair is a wonderful experience, and I think that's why it becomes a favorite chair or relaxing in a chair, reading in a chair, watching television in a chair. It's the activity that makes it, I think, the favorite. And of course the chair performs well for that activity.
DESJARDINSYou also write, and the way you look at chairs is not just by design, but you write rather strongly that a chair is made to be sat in. You talk about what chairs may look beautiful but may actually not be nice to sit in.
RYBCZYNSKII could -- the Eames lounge chair for me was not a pleasant chair to sit in because it was a bit small. I'm quite large, and it just didn't support my back enough. I had a Wassily chair, which was a chair designed by Marcel Breuer, made out of chrome, steel, and leather, and I'd always admired the chair.
DESJARDINSAnd that has the overlapping leather.
RYBCZYNSKIYes, it was made at the Bauhaus sort of in the '20s. It's sort of classic of Bauhaus design, and I'd always admired the chair, but I never sat in it. And my wife bought me one for my birthday. When I sat in it, I realized this is really not a very comfortable chair. It's not a chair you want to spend a lot of time in. And we ended up using it just to put our clothes on in the bedroom because it really was not a terribly practical chair.
RYBCZYNSKISo the practical part has to come first. It's not the only thing that makes a chair good, but it has to be there.
DESJARDINSWe're getting some emails a little bit along this line. We have an email from Keith, who writes, my wife and I spent two hours yesterday looking for the perfect recliner. It is such a personal choice to get good ergonomics. And Keith, go ahead and email us back as to what your choice was. I'm curious if you found the perfect recliner. We also have an email from Vince in Baltimore, who writes, I'm personally sitting in a tall -- right now in a tall, vintage, orange, Herman Miller fiberglass shell office chair. However, he writes, I find myself wanting to stand more as it seems to be better for my lower back. Does your guest think that chair design will be affected by the current thought that sitting itself might not be healthy for you?
RYBCZYNSKIWell there's certainly a fashion today for working standing up or standup desks, which are tall desks.
RYBCZYNSKIOf course Victorian clerks always sat on stools, and when I was a young architect working in offices, I also -- the tables were high. Drafting tables used to be high, and you sat on a stool, which is a very good seat because you're almost standing up, and you're not bent over in the same way as if you're sitting in a low chair.
RYBCZYNSKII wanted to read something that Vladimir Nabokov wrote about working because...
RYBCZYNSKII think that standup desks are actually a fad. I think it'll come and go. But he talks about his office, and he says, it's a wonderful quote. I generally start the day at a lovely, old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk. And finally when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I lie down on a coach in a corner of my small study.
RYBCZYNSKII think that's really the answer to the chair. The chair is fine, but all sitting down eventually gets tiresome. Your back hurts, or you want to get up, and so you get up and walk around, you can stand up for a while, you can sit for a while, you can lie down. That seems to me the most commonsense kind of reaction to chairs.
RYBCZYNSKIThere are problems -- the human body is not made for sitting. That's the sort of brief statement.
RYBCZYNSKIWe're very good at standing, we're good at running and lying down, but sitting is an awkward position for us, and yet we get tired, we want to sit down, and then there are activities that require sitting down like writing or eating.
DESJARDINSWell, that's the way we've designed our tables.
DESJARDINSYes, right, right.
RYBCZYNSKISo we need -- we need chairs, but they're always a compromise, and I quote a very famous chair designer who says that sitting down is always a compromise. And so one solution is to make chairs roomy so you can move around and cross your legs. Arms are very important in chairs because you can lean on them, and you can change your position, leaning on one side or the other side.
RYBCZYNSKISo constant movement is actually part of sitting. Nobody sits without moving except somebody driving a car, where we don't have a choice, especially the driver. But most sitting down involves a lot of movement.
DESJARDINSUnless you're the pope, right.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd we need to move because we need -- the blood has to keep circulating, and if you don't move, you start literally to atrophy in a sense, and you feel discomfort.
DESJARDINSRight. Let's go to the phones and to Skip, who is calling from North Little Rock, Arkansas. Skip, what's on your mind?
SKIPWell, I was interested in the discussion about the history of the chair in Egypt. I spent several years in Eritrea, back when it was still part of Ethiopia. I was stationed there in the service as an Arabic linguist, and I had studied archaeology, so I stayed there for a couple years after, continuing archaeological work and travel and language learning.
SKIPBut a friend of mine, an Eritrean man, his father was a craftsman, and he made a magnificent wooden chair with laced strips of goatskin for the back and the seat, which was originally given to a couple of friends of mine, but they had trouble with their dog chewing on the goatskin, so they passed it on to me. And so now I have this chair that was originally made in the early '70s, but it is a style, a design, which is very similar to those found in Egyptian tombs and on Egyptian wall paintings.
DESJARDINSThat's fascinating. Can you describe -- describe it a little bit more for us?
RYBCZYNSKISure, it has -- as I stated, it has a back and seat with a wooden frame filled in with goatskin strips that are laced in a woven pattern. And the two upright shafts of the chair have a carved sort of diamond shape at the top, which is a common element in Eritrean and Ethiopian design. And then the legs are short, very short, similar to the Egyptian tomb furniture, and they're also carved with designs, which are common in their traditional art.
SKIPBut the whole thing, if you take a picture of it and look at it side by side with some of the chairs from Tutankhamen's tomb, for example, you can see the strong similarity.
DESJARDINSSkip, that sounds like a very special chair. I'm very glad you called and shared that with us. Thank you. You know, one thing he mentioned there, to touch on about chairs, is the hierarchy of who used what kinds of chairs. Obviously in ancient Egypt I believe it was more the nobility, and thrones, of course, are probably considered in some ways the highest station of I guess leadership at one point and certain in medieval times. Can you talk about that, what chairs -- what they -- how -- what they meant to social structure in the past?
RYBCZYNSKIYeah, they've -- it's interesting because it varies quite a lot. The Greeks, perhaps because they invented democracy, had very democratic chairs. And so we have pictures of all sorts of people sitting in chairs, the gods, important people, poets, women, as well as men, people working at something. So chairs were, in that society, not a symbol of status. On the other hand, in medieval Europe, there were very few chairs.
RYBCZYNSKISo I was at the National Gallery the other day looking at paintings, and I realized that in Bruegel's paintings, for instance, we have these crowds of people, ordinary people, nobody is sitting on a chair or even a stool. They're sitting either on the ground, which is the most common, or on a rock or on a bucket or a barrel. So even sitting on a bench was a kind of honor, and sitting on a chair was actually reserved for very important people, not just thrones, but the judge might sit on a chair in a trial, or the master of the household might have a special armchair, but everybody else would be -- would have benches.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd so chairs were not actually very comfortable, but they were status symbols, and it's only later that chairs become more comfortable and more ubiquitous so that everybody can sit in a chair, and it really becomes a kind of tool that the whole household uses.
DESJARDINSYou know, last year my husband and I were visiting dear friends in England, and they took us to George Washington's ancestral home, I believe the home of his grandfather or great-grandfather. And we noticed, as we toured the home, that there was in fact -- there were in fact very few chairs, that the dining area, it was benches with one chair, which was reserved for the master of the house. And that surprised us, but it seems like it was very, very common. That was even -- that was pre -- that was the beginnings of colonial times.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah, it's not -- I don't think it is a question of cost or that they didn't know how to build chairs, and they only built one for the master. I think it was -- it really was a question of...
RYBCZYNSKIThe question of a society that was very rigid, that was not changing quickly. I mean, historians have observed that in certain societies, everything stagnates, including furniture because furniture costs money, and so, you know, replacing all the furniture in a house would be very expensive. But things kind of settle down, and people don't innovate very much. And then when innovation starts, it often happens very quickly, and so when people develop chairs, in the 17th century they invent upholstery, which makes chairs very comfortable because they are now soft.
DESJARDINSI'm thankful to those people in the 17th century, yeah.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd you see in drawings and paintings where the house is full of chairs, and people are using them for all sorts of things.
DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. All right, you talked about innovation, and I mentioned George Washington. We know that the founding fathers were very interested in furniture, Thomas Jefferson famously, but George Washington had a chair, the fan chair, that doesn't seem like it caught fire with the public. Can you describe this chair and sort of talk about that era in American craftsmanship?
RYBCZYNSKIWell, the chair itself is actually a Windsor chair, but the fan -- it was called a fan chair because it was -- I think it was a musical instrument maker in Philadelphia invented it, and it was a pedal-operated fan that was like a blade above the sitter in the chair. So remember, this is a time without air conditioning, and we're -- I mean, we're in Washington on a really hot day.
RYBCZYNSKISo if you're sitting, trying to write, and everything's sticking to you, you can imagine how -- so this fan was operated by a foot pedal that George Washington would push, and the fan would be like one of those fans, they're called punkah fans in Indian households, it's just a blade that move slowly back and forth, and it creates a little breeze above your head and cools you down. George Washington also owned about 20 or 30 Windsor chairs that he used for guests, and he had a variety of furniture in his house. He had a wing chair in the bedroom. He bought used chairs when he started off, he didn't have a lot of money, and then later on brought imported chairs from England and also had furniture makers in Philadelphia make chairs for him.
RYBCZYNSKISo by then chairs were an important part of living, different kinds of chairs for different uses.
DESJARDINSHow did we get to that point? How did we get to the point where --- between George Washington's grandfather and ancestors and he, himself? I know you write in your book about a man you consider to be the Henry Ford of chairs. Can you talk about him and the role of making chairs ubiquitous?
RYBCZYNSKIWell, Michael Thonet was a German who later moved to Vienna, and that's where his career took off, and he invented the bentwood chair, and he was trying to develop cheap chairs that he could sell to cafes and hotels. Cafes had become very popular in Vienna, and they used a lot of chairs, and making chairs by hand traditionally cost an awful lot of money, and you had to have very skilled workers. And he basically invented a way of bending wood, which eliminated craftsmanship.
RYBCZYNSKISo he didn't require -- he was a...
DESJARDINSNot hand carving, but instead...
RYBCZYNSKIThere was no carving, the joints were very simple. One of his café chairs, for instance, the classic one, is only six pieces of wood, and he used to ship it flat with eight screws, and you would just assemble it at the other end. And the striking thing about these -- his chairs is they're very beautiful. It's almost a distillation of the chair. So it isn't sort of a thoughtless thing.
DESJARDINSThey have usually the arched, arched cane with another small arch in...
RYBCZYNSKIRight, and the seats are usually woven cane, and then you've got beech wood, so the legs and the back are all one -- just one U-shaped piece of wood. The seat is round. And these chairs were developed in the 1860s, so they're an old chair, but by the -- even by the 1920s, architects sort of rediscovered them, and it became very fashionable with modern architects in the 1920s to use them.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd all these chairs are still around today because they're simply very nice chairs, and they're -- because they can be mass-produced, they're very convenient for a consumer society, which is also part of Thonet's invention. He had showrooms all across Europe, and all the major American cities had Thonet showrooms. So these chairs -- and there was a -- he made everything out of bentwood. I mean, he had coat hangers and barroom chairs and auditorium seating and all -- any kind of chairs. It wasn't just one chair.
DESJARDINSAll right, we're going to take a short break. We're talking about much loved, sometimes overlooked, chairs. We'd love to hear from you, and we will take more of your calls coming up.
DESJARDINSWelcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins in for Diane Rehm. And we are experiencing something quite extraordinary. A real cavalcade of phones, phone calls, emails from people talking about their favorite chairs, asking questions about chairs for our guest Witold Rybczynski. He is the author of "Now I Sit Me Down," and architect.
DESJARDINSI'm gonna go to this one. This is an email from John. He writes, "My family has a Lincoln rocker that has been passed down through three generations. It's large and curvy, quite beautiful. He asks, "Are there other chairs named after presidents? And did Lincoln actually have one?" You think there's perhaps a different history to this chair.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah, I don't know what this chair looks like, but Lincoln is associated with a rocker in a sad way. Because he was sitting in a rocking chair when he was shot. The rocking chair in theater box where he was watching a play was one of those heavy Victorian upholstered rocking chairs. And that is probably the association with Lincoln.
RYBCZYNSKIA very different rocker from the one John Kennedy used, which was a North Carolina kind of folk design rocker, made out of wood with woven rattan…
RYBCZYNSKI…seat and back. And he saw in it because he had a bad back. And his doctor told him to sit in rocking chairs. He had rocking chairs in Air Force One.
DESJARDINSAnd he had some success with that, did he not? With the rocking chairs -- some -- somehow he had some…
RYBCZYNSKIYou mean, Kennedy?
RYBCZYNSKIWell, it became very -- he only used it for health reasons.
RYBCZYNSKIBut I think the fact that the rocking chair was a kind of ordinary vernacular people's chair, bringing it into the Oval Office, I don't think he planned this, but it was a very symbolic gesture. Because the Oval Office is a fancy place and it has fancy furniture in it. And the rocker is definitely -- particularly the rocker he used was not a fancy rocker. So I think it appealed to people that the president was sitting in this kind of very folksy kind of chair.
DESJARDINSThat is fascinating. All right. Let's go to the phones and Steve in Evansville, Ind., who has worked with chairs for quite some time. Steve, what's on your mind?
STEVEWell, I've been in the office furniture business for 43 years. And I would agree that a chair is the most important thing in the office. And how the chairs have changed -- when I first started there when I was 16 you could adjust the height by screwing a bell at the bottom. And you could adjust the tension on the chair. And sometimes the back would adjust. Well, these days, since the repetitive motion injuries is like a $30 billion plus business, you have six or seven adjustments on the chair.
STEVEYou have pneumatic lift, the chair can tilt, it can lock, the back can raise, you can have a lumbar support, you can have the back loose, you can adjust the back at any angle. The seat pan can slide, it can adjust up and down and the arms can adjust up and down, they can adjust with the width. And people -- and once you adjust these to people they usually stay there. But with all the computer work we are doing today, people need this chair to have it adjusted properly when they're at their work stations. And they -- people love their chairs. They -- it's…
DESJARDINSSteve, I'm curious, do you see people spending more on individual chairs? Is that -- I hear you saying people realize this is something that's affecting them physically. Are they now investing more in the chairs they sit in at work?
STEVEYes, they do. You can buy an office chair from $100 to over $1000.
STEVEBut you can buy a fully adjustable chair for, you know, 300 bucks will get you a decent chair. Once you get into higher amounts it's really more of a stylish type of chair that -- or name brand that people like. But these days it seems like a mesh back that breathes with a light lumbar support and in my business it seems like 80 percent of the chairs are black now also. And I also wanted to…
DESJARDINSI can tell you 100 percent of the chairs in the studio -- 100 percent of the chairs in our studio are black.
STEVEYeah, you know, and I wanted to mention when he -- the gentleman was talking about the stand-up stations, you know, that's just another way -- no matter what kind of chair you have, no matter how good your office chair is, you gotta mix your tasks up 'cause you can't sit there for eight hours at your computer and do the same task. You need to know how to sit in your chair and how your -- everything around you is adjusted, but you also -- the standing up as to get you off your hind end and get you to do something different during the day. 'Cause you can't sit -- no matter what the chair is, you can't sit in it for more than two or three hours at a time and expect not to have maybe long-term complications with that.
DESJARDINSSteve, what a great call. Thank you for calling us and letting us know up to the minute what's happening in the chair industry. There's a chair that I know you pay some attention to in the book, Witold, that maybe people don't pay so much attention to in their lives right now, but you think actually might be changing the world. What kind of chair is this?
RYBCZYNSKIIt's -- it doesn't have a real name. Some people call it the white plastic chair. It's -- the technical name is Monobloc chair because it's one piece of plastic.
DESJARDINSIt's a plastic chair.
RYBCZYNSKIIt's the plastic chair that we see everywhere. In fact, I don't think we see it anymore. There's so many of them.
DESJARDINSWe're just used to it. It's like we don't notice it.
RYBCZYNSKIIt's the first global chair because it's made in virtually every country. It's not exported from anywhere. It's made in every country. It's very inexpensive. It's not even made by furniture makers. It's made by the plastics industry, which is very important in developing countries especially, 'cause they make buckets and water containers and things like that. And so since they're making all these plastic things, they are looking for things to make out of plastic. And the chair is one of these things.
RYBCZYNSKISo it is, in a way, a wonderful evolution in the chair because it has no joints. Joints are the hardest thing in chairs 'cause they get loose and you've gotta figure out a way of making them. And that's usually expensive and complicated. And if you make a chair out of one piece of material, it has no joints. So it's incredibly strong. Some plastic chairs are flimsy, but a well-made plastic chair, you can leave it outside, you can stand on it, I mean, not -- it lasts forever. Of course, it never degrades, either, which is part of its, I suppose, modernity in a way.
DESJARDINSAnd it's added multiple economic layers, it sounds like, to many countries. Whether it's just the business…
RYBCZYNSKIWell, they're always very cheap. You can buy more expensive, better made ones, designed by designers. They're more attractive looking, they're more solid feeling.
DESJARDINSBut it's to say it's created industries and also added to say whatever -- owner of cafe can buy some cheap plastic chairs if they want, as they're starting out.
RYBCZYNSKIYes. If you look carefully at any news broadcast from Syria or the Middle East or Africa, you'll see plastic chairs. They're either used in offices, they're used on the street, they're -- people are getting haircuts in them. I mean, they're -- they've become a global chair. And so probably they've brought sitting to more people in the last really only three or four decades. It's some -- somebody invented it in the 1980s. It's not patented. And nobody takes credit for it. It's not a chair that people admire, I suppose. But it -- from the '80s 'til today it's really become ubiquitous.
DESJARDINSLet's go back to the phones and to Jeanne in St. Pete Beach, Fla. Jeanne, tell us about the chair you're sitting in right now.
JEANNEI'm sitting in the chair, right this second as we speak, at my desk. This chair belonged to my father. He's passed away since. And he has been -- he has sat in this chair for his entire career. It's not a very comfortable chair and I don't sit in it for the comfortability. I sit it in because the arms on -- it's a swivel chair, wood, has like a leather seat with the wood frame on the level. It swivels. It's a Sikes chair, which I don't know what that means, S-I-K-E-S. But the arms wrap around my back and all the way around forward and it feels like my father's energy is with me. And it's just a chair I love because I just loved him so much.
DESJARDINSOh, my goodness, Jeanne. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing that with us. I have a story from sort of the other end of memory. This is an email from Richard. He writes, "In 1976, I had an interview with Admiral Rickover, the founder of the U.S. Nuclear Navy." And any Navy family will be very familiar with him and many who followed history, of course. "He had a fake leather chair in his office with two inches cut off the front legs. This made the people sitting for interviews very uncomfortable because you felt like you were falling out of the chair."
DESJARDINSRicard writes, "I did get the job, but I will never forget that chair." So whether the chair is loving or punishing, it really becomes a part of memory. We talked about sort of the emotional connection to chairs before. But it seems like there's a physical aspect to that, as well. It's not just the place that chair had in your home, but it's what that chair feels like when you sit in it.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah, because we touch a chair and we lean on it. And I've never heard that story about Rickover, but I've read in a novel about a chair like that. Where the interviewee is very -- is intentionally made very uncomfortable. And in the novel he finally turns the chair around and sits on it backwards, you know, straddling it. And I think that impresses the interviewer. But I didn't -- I had no idea it was an actual -- based on something real.
DESJARDINSIt seems like it may be. It's interesting.
DESJARDINSHow about the chair in pop culture. You know, in thinking for this show, I thought -- my thoughts wandered all the way from Fred Astaire and his use of the chair in dances to "Seinfeld," which has an entire episode in which George buys a rocking chair for a security guard. And of course it all goes very awry -- to my sort of fumbled reference at the beginning of the show to the "Game of Thrones," probably the most-obsessed about chair these days, the "Game of Thrones" chair made out of the swords of vanquished enemies. How has the chair played out in pop culture, just in our modern day culture?
RYBCZYNSKII think the most common connection is probably to make the chair a kind of stand-in for its owners. I'm thinking of "All in the Family," Archie Bunker…
RYBCZYNSKI…had an old wing chair. And nobody was allowed to sit in it. And it sort of -- it was a stand-in for him and it was not just his favorite chair, but it somehow represented. It was a very traditional chair. It was also very beat up. It wasn't a fancy, fashionable chair. And that, of course, was part of his character. So I think using chairs as metaphors for a character in plays and movies is -- or even in paintings. I mean, it's some -- it's a way of telling something about a character by the kind of chair that he chooses to sit in.
DESJARDINSIt's heavily symbolic.
DESJARDINSAnd I'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to see what we've got on the phone. Another phone call from Joel in St. Louis. Joel, tell us about your stool, I believe it is.
JOELYes. Good morning. We've had for many years in my family a wooden footstool with a leather -- a graceful leather top. The stool is about 10 inches tall, with four legs, which, in fact, our two arches, which in the nature of the arch create four legs. As I say, we for many years considered this and used it as a footstool. Until a visitor to our home informed us that in fact it was a camel seat.
DESJARDINSHum, what do you know? All right. Thank you for that, Joel. We appreciate it. And we are receiving many votes for different kinds of favorite chairs. I want to run through a couple here with our guest, Witold Rybczynski. Tom writes his favorite is the simple schoolhouse wooden ladder back chair, many of us know well. From Jacob, "My favorite chair is a streamline chrome and mohair armchair made by Gilbert Rohde in 1935." That sounds unique and amazing.
DESJARDINSFrom Catherine, "My favorite of all is my grandfather's rocker." Mary writes, "My centuries old nursing rocker." This is part of a theme we see. And from Deidre, "I have a draftsman chair. I've been a draftsman for 30 years. The best chair, that I address you from now, is a knee chair. I sit with my knees forward on a pad. What a noticeable relief in my lower back." We're seeing these personal connections, whether it be to people's works or to their personal life. You noted in the book that the chair has particularly anthropomorphic names to its parts, legs, arms, backs. These sort of -- not -- it's not just a symbol for artists, but we sort of make it a symbol for ourselves, each of us.
RYBCZYNSKIYeah, I think the names actually didn't come first. I think our connection to the chair was personal. And so we gave it these personal names. And of course, historically, chair legs have sometimes been like animal legs with claws and hooves and various things, with makes them also -- sort of gives them a real character 'cause they look some sort of animal. Or some of the Charles and Ray Eames chairs look like insects 'cause they have these very thin metal legs and then kind of organic-looking tops.
RYBCZYNSKISo yes, we give character to chairs. And I think that's one of the joys of chairs, is when you look at it, it also -- it's sitting in it, but also looking at it and it brings to mind something. And then as the listeners point out, I mean, memory is a big part of chairs. So chairs that belonged to your ancestors or that you did something in that has a meaning for you, is all part of the chair.
DESJARDINSWe have -- my big brother went to great links to make sure to keep a famous -- or in our family -- Windsor chair, the loved Windsor chair in our family. It means a lot to us. And he's keeping good care of it in Charlottesville. It's something we've all been happy about. So I understand that. I've been thinking with this -- for this hour, also about the other direction. We use the term of chair to describe a leader, the chairman of a committee for example.
DESJARDINSAnd I've noticed, you know, as we look at political candidates, they tend to not like to sit down when addressing people, even as we see in forums where they're offered a stool. Sometimes awkwardly they will stand up and walk around. Can you talk about the chair, sort of in its role with leaders? We give the chair, just by its name, a kind of leadership role, but yet our political leaders seem to want to stand these days.
RYBCZYNSKII guess it's part of -- certainly in debates people stand. A recent image that really struck me was -- it was on "60 Minutes." And it was an interview with Donald Trump and Pence. And they were sitting in, I think, Trump's apartment. They were sitting in Louis XV chairs, which are actually very beautiful chairs, perfectly good chairs. But it's odd to see an American political leader in a French chair. So if you went to Elysee Palace, where I haven't been, you would find Louis XIV and XV chairs.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd that's a matter of course. And the French premiere always sits in one of those. But it's odd to see an American politician in a French chair. And I don't think, in this case, it was a symbolism that was intentional. They probably just happened to be around.
RYBCZYNSKIBut it was very striking. 'Cause French chairs are gilt, they're very decorative, compared to a Windsor chair or a rocking chair they look kind of frivolous. And it's not the image that I think the Anglo-Saxon culture admires. English chairs, which are usually not gilt, but varnished mahogany, they're kind of severe. I think that's the sort of chair we associate with our political leaders.
DESJARDINSSee a chair and you see a culture, which is really the theme of your book.
DESJARDINSRight? Tell me, as we, unfortunately, have to wrap up this show, about your favorite chairs. And also, I imagine, you've just -- just in this hour we've received dozens of stories. I imagine you have been bombarded with people's stories about chairs.
RYBCZYNSKIThe most interesting one I got, just recently, an email from a Native American woman who was talking about Plains Indians. Indians tend to sit on the ground. And I have a section in the book, it talks about posture. They have -- the posture is that your legs are straight out, not cross-legged like Indians from East Asia. But -- and people who sit on the ground often lean against things 'cause they get tired. And, of course, in a wigwam you can't lean against a canvas tent.
RYBCZYNSKIAnd so she described this kind of backrest, which was a tripod. It was portable because these were nomads. It was a tripod which had sort of mat made out of twigs that was supported by the tripod, and which allowed you to sit on the mat and lean back and basically, you were sitting on the ground, but you were sitting in a kind chair. So that was an interesting example of sort of adaptation.
DESJARDINSWitold Rybczynski, I can't thank you enough. I think our listeners have had a lot of thoughts that perhaps they didn't expect today. And we appreciate it. His book is "Now I Sit Me Down." Again, it's author Witold Rybczynski, who's also an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm Lisa Desjardins. Thank you so much for joining us.
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